Humour français

I have been trying to get to grips with the French sense of humour. Given my tenuous understanding of the language, this is something of a tall order and I’m resigned to it being a long and ultimately fruitless task. Nevertheless there should be a few laughs on the way. Here are a few general observations.

The French can be very funny. We’ve recently been watching a Netflix comedy series Dix pour cent, about the staff working at a talent agency in Paris. It’s available in the UK with the title Call my agent and I strongly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, well-acted and easily stands comparison with the best of US and UK comedy. Another excellent programme on French tv is Scènes de ménages ( a Scène de ménage is what a UK policeman would call a “domestic”). Each week we see a series of very short sketches, each featuring one of a set of six couples ranging in age from their thirties to their eighties. It’s now in it’s tenth series and the characters are all well-established. Again, its well written and acted and I’m a little surprised a UK company hasn’t picked up this simple but effective format.

On the other hand, French humour can often be very childish. When I was teaching in Paris, I was surprised by how often a group of adults could be reduced to fits of giggling by any passing mention of nudity, bodily functions or lavatories. Once I discovered this, I found a touch of the Frankie Howards was a useful way of enlivening a lesson that was beginning to sag a little.

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The phrase double entendre is not used in France To get the English meaning across in France you would say double sens or sous- entendu.    

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The French love calambours (puns). The language lends itself well to them for two reasons. Firstly, in spoken French, the syllables in a sentence are much more evenly stressed. An English person is unlikely to misunderstand the phrase “mighty tower” as “my tea tower” but in French “les rapaces” (the birds of prey) sounds identical to “les rats passent ” (the rats are passing). Secondly French has a lot more homophones than English : sain, saint, ceint, (healthy, saint, surrounded) are all pronounced the same, as are ver, vert, vers (worm, green, towards ) and sceau, saut, seau (seal, jump and bucket). The list of homophones seems to be endless.

 Puns have an honourable history in French classical literature. In the 16th Century when the dramatist Corneille wrote: Le désir s’accroît quand l’effet se recule (Desire increases when the effect recedes), he knew full well that his audience would pick up the alternative Le désir s’accroît quand les fesses reculent ( Desire increases when the buttocks recede).

A popular type of pun today is Monsieur et Madame. These are similar to English “knock knock jokes” (or the late arrivals at the ball in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – Mr & Mrs Decent-Exposure, & their son, Ian; Mr & Mrs Nutcluster, & their daughter, Hazel)

Monsieur et madame Vanbus ont une fille. Comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Hillary!

Mr and Mrs Vanbus have a daughter. What’s her name?
Hillary!

(“Hillary Vanbus” = “Il arrive en bus,” = “He’s arriving by bus.”)

Monsieur et Madame Bonbeur ont un fils, comment l’appellent-il?
Jean.

Mrs and Mr Bonbeur have a son. What’s his name?
John!

(“Jean Bonbeur” = jambon beurre = a ham sandwich)

Monsieur et Madame Diote ont une fille, comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Kelly!.

Mr and Mrs Diote have a daughter. What’s her name?
Kelly!

(Kelly Diote = Quelle idiote! = what an idiot!)


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The French also like spoonerisms (contrepèteries) – where two letters are switched around in a phrase to change its meaning. Again these have been around a long time – In the 15th century Rabelais gave us “Elle est folle de la messe.” ( she’s crazy about mass) and “elle est molle de la fesse,” (“she has a soft behind.” ).

Most of the modern versions I’ve come across are obscene but this poster is relatively tame.

 Macron nous a dit 2 gros mois / Macron nous a mis 2 gros doigts (Macron told us two great months / Macron gave us two big fingers.)

Here’s another: Les Russes sont en fetê. / Les fesses sont en route. (The Russians are celebrating. / The buttocks are on their way). They do seem to have a thing about buttocks, don’t they?

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Like all nations the French have their stereotypes. The target for national humour is Belgium, with Belgians being portrayed as uniformly thick. They are similar to Irishman jokes in England, and about as funny:

Pourquoi les Belges ont-ils arrêté la chasse au canard?”
Parce qu’ils n’arrivent pas à jeter le chien assez haut!”

Why did the Belgian stop hunting ducks?
They couldn’t throw the dog high enough.

The only Belgian joke that has made me smile doesn’t really fit the category:

 “The director of Pulp Fiction is making a movie about a Belgian comic book character who gets coronavirus and has to self- isolate. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s “Tintin’s Quarantino”.

I’ll get my coat.

***

Within France there are numerous regional stereotypes but these very according to where you ask. Here are a few opinions I’ve picked up from some very unscientific research. As far as I am aware, there isn’t a scrap of truth in any of them:

Parisians think that everyone outside Paris lives on a farm.

People to the south of Paris (Versailles, Chartres, Orléans): are “closet monarchists”.

The rest of the country think that Parisian are rude, sulky and arrogant.

People from Normandy can’t give you a straight answer to a question and are addicted to apples.

People from Nord-Pas-de-Calais are depressive, in-bred and alcoholic.

People from Brittany are stubborn, scheming and “really alcoholic”.

People from Alsace are uncommunicative, with ridiculous accents and shitty weather.

People from the Auvergne are crafty, greedy and live on cheese.

People from Marseille are always exaggerating, and the women are the equivalent of Essex girls.

People from the south-west (Basque country) are loud, colourful and alcoholic.

People from Toulouse are always late and live on cassoulet.

People from Lyon are laid-back and have an inferiority complex towards Paris.

People from Poitou and the Loire ( i.e. us) are stubborn, boring, conservatives.

People from Bordeaux are champagne socialists (“gauche caviare” ); they either have an uncle who owns a vineyard or are pensioners living by the sea.

People from Nice are not very nice at all.

I’d be glad to hear of others or of any observations on French humour.                  

Two meetings with the mayor

Tuesday was Bastille Day, a more subdued occasion than in most years. There were no big firework displays, either in Paris or here in Poitiers. The usual grandiose military parade in Paris was redesigned to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers, and medics were all honoured at the scaled-back event.

In his address to the nation, President Macron announced a recovery plan for the economy which will include ‘at least 100 billion euros’ in addition to the 460 billion already committed to economic support since the start of the epidemic. The previous evening, the government had announced a significant agreement with trade unions which will see the wages of health workers rise by €183 a month on average (a more tangible benefit than being clapped at every evening).

Here in Poitiers in the main square, there was the usual display of troops, gendarmes, firefighters, and ambulance workers. The presentations of medals, presumably now all long-service awards, took place in the presence of the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, and a sprinkling of civil and military dignitaries. As in previous years, the brass band seemed to be playing La Marseillaise every ten minutes but, perhaps in acknowledgement of the new regime, they ended with a surprisingly effective rendition of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’.

Wandering around to take some photos, I found a good spot behind a barrier near the stage. On the other side of the barrier, a woman in uniform with a camera, clearly some sort of army PR person, had noticed the same vantage point and started to walk towards me, smiling. I assumed that she was acknowledging that she was about to pinch my viewpoint and, accepting that she had her job to do, I smiled back and shrugged. She then proceeded to nod her head from side to side several times and enlarged her smile into a large Joker-like grin. I thought this was a bit weird, but nonetheless, a little self-consciously, I nodded my own head back at her. At this point she raised her hand to her face and blew a kiss towards me. I thought this was really too much, and I was about to say something offensive when I suddenly felt something brush against my leg. Looking down, I saw a little girl, about four years old, who had obviously been the intended recipient of all the photographer’s gestures. I slipped away quietly.

***

On Thursday we went to the first public meeting of Poitiers Collectif since their stunning victory in the municipal elections. It was a very warm evening, and two hours of sitting, wearing a mask, in a room without air-conditioning was not much fun. The meeting was fairly inconsequential. Various members of the Collectif spoke and promised us consultations, petitions, focus groups, awareness sessions, and the like. One sensed that the audience was a little underwhelmed. Still, the speakers all seem very nice and enthusiastic, and these are early days.

There was a question-and-answer session at the end. The mayor, Madame Moncond’huy, listened politely while a couple of people complained about parking restrictions and refuse collections. I was close to nodding off when I suddenly heard a voice at the back that I thought I recognised. I looked round and, sure enough, there was Mr Twomey, up on his feet.

I hadn’t heard from him since our strange phone conversation a couple of weeks ago. Despite the warm room, he was wearing the fawn raincoat he always seems to be in, and he was sweating profusely. Next to him was a small, red-faced woman in her fifties whom I didn’t recognise. Both of them had moved their masks to the tops of their heads, despite sitting right next to a sign clearly stating that masks should be worn.

It took a while to tune in – Twomey’s French is not much better than mine and he’d clearly had a few drinks – but I gradually understood that he was complaining about the lack of public conveniences in Poitiers and going into rather too much detail about the number of times this had forced him to take emergency measures. He then made a very poor joke about Madame Moncond’huy’s name (it’s pronounced ‘Mon Con Dwee’) and the phrase ‘men can’t wee’, which he seemed to think highly amusing. Luckily, nobody in the room seemed to understand a word of it.

I could see one or two of the security staff exchanging glances and edging towards him, and I feared there might be an embarrassing incident. Fortunately. at this point, the red-faced woman hissed loudly, ‘Shut up, you eejit’ and yanked at his raincoat, forcing him to fall back into his seat with a silly grin on his face. The mayor made no attempt to respond to his remarks and immediately took the opportunity to thank us all and close the meeting.

Madame S and I left quickly in case Twomey spotted us. I didn’t want anyone there to connect us in any way. I resolved to make contact with him at some stage in the near future to find out who this woman is (he has never mentioned any sort of relationship) and what exactly is going on in his life at the moment. I thought it better not to tell Madame of this plan.

Money, masks and markets

When I were a lad’ (1)

When I was about 12, I went through the collecting phase. Stamps, coins, football programmes, etc. None of them lasted that long. During the stamps period, I remember a teacher, Mr Murray, a slightly deranged Scotsman, telling me that a good guide to a country’s importance was their postage stamps. Small inconsequential nations (the word ‘tinpot’ may have been used) were forever producing new sets of gaudily coloured stamps commemorating a trivial event in their history or an individual that nobody outside their borders had ever heard of. ‘Serious’ nations, like the UK, would just have the head of state on their stamps and would produce commemorative stamps on only the rarest of occasions.

This would have been about 1963, and a quick check shows that, certainly as far as the UK was concerned, he was right up to that point. In 1924, the first commemorative stamps were issued for the British Empire Exhibition. There were only a handful of commemorative issues over the next thirty years, usually to mark a royal occasion – a coronation, wedding, or jubilee.

Sadly for Mr Murray, it was about this time that the rot set in. From 1963, the Post Office started issuing commemorative stamps more and more regularly. There were four sets in 1964 (including a set marking Shakespeare’s quatercentenary) and nine in 1965 (including a set to mark the death of Winston Churchill). In 2019 there were fifteen (including Marvel Comics, The Gruffalo, and Star Wars). So far this year there have been sets for video games, James Bond, and Coronation Street. Delights to come include Rupert Bear, Sherlock, and Star Trek.

Why am I telling you this? Well, a similar trend can now be seen with the UK’s currency. In my coin-collecting phase, I briefly owned a very handsome 1860 Victorian half-crown; a hundred years later, apart from the monarch’s head, the design was still almost identical.

Now it’s been announced that the Royal Mint are producing a set of coins to honour Sir Elton John. Four of them will have a face value of £5 (but for some reason will cost £15 each). There will also be a £100 one-ounce gold coin (costing £2,320), and a £100 kilo gold coin (£68,865). Apparently it’s the latest in the Royal Mint series of ‘Music Legends’ coin sets. The first of these, which had Queen on them, came out in January. This passed me by completely, but then, ‘Queen to appear on UK coin’ is not the most eye-catching of headlines.

Queen
Elton John

Does any of this matter? Not really. Probably just a touch of indigestion.

***

When I were a lad’ (2)

I can remember a time when, on leaving the house, all you had to do was remember your keys and money. Over the years, glasses were sadly added to the list, then a phone – at which point the mnemonic KPMG became a useful reminder. Now a mask is yet another item to join the little pile on the hall table. I’ve got used to wearing mine now, and I’m getting better at putting it on without being reminded to do so by Madame.

I’ve noticed that, even when not wearing them, most people are now carrying one ready to slip on when going into a shop or café. Some leave them dangling from one ear, which I think gives them a slightly deranged look. Others tuck them under their chin or upwards and onto their foreheads, like cricketers with their sunglasses. In The Times recently, Matthew Parris tells of seeing a man in a suit with his mask folded neatly and tucked into the breast pocket of his jacket, only the blue point showing, as a gentleman might do with the handkerchief into which he is never going to blow his nose.

According to Mr Parris, the ripped jeans favoured by teenagers today could be a throwback to the Renaissance when, for a time, there was a fashion for men’s garments to sport a pre-sewn slit to hint at a (highly unlikely) recent sword fight. In the same way, at some time in the future when this pandemic is long forgotten, it might be fashionable for women to hang elegant fabric pendants from one ear, or for young men to strap a piece of elasticated cotton on the tops of their heads. And nobody will remember why.

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On Wednesday morning, I went to the market at Place de Provence. This involves a climb up a very steep hill to reach the Couronneries quartier of Poitiers, which is basically a collection of housing estates with a few small scattered malls and cheap shops. It’s a very different place to Centre-ville, where we live, and this is reflected in the street markets in the two areas. In Centre-ville, the Saturday market is held around the central covered market, which is open six days a week. It is mainly a food market, with a few antiques stalls around the periphery. The customers are predominantly white, and there are occasions when I’ve visited and it has reminded me of the Armstrong and Miller sketch about English Farmer’s markets, which is worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

In the Couronneries, the market is held on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. Place de Provence sounds nice but is basically a large car park in front of the U Express supermarket. The population is a lot more cosmopolitan here, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of London’s Brick Lane. As well as food, there are stalls selling clothes, household goods, bedding, and furniture.

Despite their differences, both markets are a treat to visit. The range and quality of food is really impressive, much of it is locally grown, and the competition keeps prices pretty keen.

On Wednesday when I went, a group of local students were conducting a survey about people’s attitudes to bringing up children and how much of this people felt should be solely the responsibility of women. They were recording people’s opinions on card and adding them to a display in the middle of the marketplace. One of them approached me and, despite my protestations about my poor French, my mumbled contribution was noted and my card was eventually added to the display. All well and good, but the buggers never said they were going to put my age on it!

Non!
Old enough to know better

A week is a long time in politics

On Tuesday I received a ‘thank you’ e-mail from Poitiers Collectif for assisting in their election victory, presumably because I had signed up for their weekly newsletter a couple of months ago. I’d also signed up for the newsletters of their two opponents, the Socialists and the LREM, so I was probably going to be thanked whatever the outcome, but nevertheless it’s nice to feel appreciated.

The truth is I am still struggling to get a clear grasp of the political situation here, both nationally and locally. To me, President Macron and Prime Minister Philippe both seemed to be doing a commendable job in handling the Coronavirus situation, particularly when compared to the seemingly shambolic state of affairs in the UK. Yet M. Macron continues to do badly in the polls, and his party did very badly in the recent election.

One area that I have found difficult to unravel is public finances, i.e. how taxes are shared between local and central government and how the local budget is determined and managed. The arrival of a new regime here in Poitiers will probably mean that this and next year’s budgets will be under a lot of public scrutiny, so this will be a good opportunity to get to grips with local finance.

As far as I can see, lack of funding does not seem to be a significant problem in the way that it is for local authorities in the UK. Schools are well maintained. Libraries, museums, and other public institutions appear to be flourishing. In the two years or so that we have lived here, the council seemed to me to be doing a good job in terms of the basics, like policing, refuse collection, road repairs, etc. The city is clean – graffiti seem to disappear almost immediately, though crottes de chien (dog turds – a France-wide problem) take a little longer. It would be naïve to say that Poitiers does not have its share of the problems that are experienced by all urban communities in France – drug-taking, petty crime, the decline of the ‘high street’ – but by and large it seems a decent place to live. Yet when I asked people their opinion of the previous mayor, Alain Claeys, most seemed apathetic at best. This might, of course, just be the result of his having already been in office for twelve years and people wanting a change. The most common criticism I heard was that he wasn’t really a socialist or was ‘not socialist enough’. On being asked what they meant, people struggled to come up with anything specific.

When I moved to Paris, nineteen years ago, I read France on the Brink by Jonathan Fenby – first published in 1998, it’s probably the best one-volume introduction to France’s history, politics, and culture that one can read. Whilst he admired almost all aspects of French life, Fenby, as the book’s title suggests, was pessimistic about the future. Growing cynicism about the political process, rising unemployment, and racial tension in the city suburbs led him to think that things could not go on as they were. Something would have to give. When we moved here two years ago, I read a new updated version published in 2014. Sixteen years had passed, but the message was the same: the country can’t go on like this.

An alternative analysis is succinctly offered by the French writer and traveller Sylvain Tesson (a sort of French A. A. Gill), who has said ‘France is heaven inhabited by people who think they live in hell’. I don’t want to tempt fate or to belittle the problems faced by many of the population, but maybe there is something in the French psyche that creates this atmosphere of being permanently on the brink. On verra, as they say here: we shall see.

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On Wednesday I collected a package from the Post Office. It was a late-delivered Father’s Day present from my two lovely daughters: a small hamper containing, amongst other things, Yorkshire Tea, Gentleman’s Relish, Maynard’s Wine Gums, and plain chocolate Kit Kats. I’m very snooty about expats who whinge about food they can’t get in France, but nevertheless this was a most welcome surprise. One item I hadn’t seen before was a jar containing a mixture of peanut butter and Marmite. This sounds (and looks) pretty disgusting but is actually very tasty. That said, I don’t think I’ll be offering it to any of our French friends just yet.

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Friday. A week is a long time in politics. The President has replaced his government, and we have a new Prime Minister, Jean Castex. His predecessor Edouard Philippe is now free to take up his post as mayor of Le Havre. In seven days the political scene has changed dramatically, both nationally and locally.

In 1898, in the middle of growing international tension between Russia and Japan, Fred Potter, the editor of a small provincial Irish newspaper, caused some hilarity by publishing an editorial stating that henceforth The Skibbereen Eagle would ‘keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies—whether at home or abroad—of human progression and man’s natural rights’. I think such hilarity was quite uncalled for and hereby serve notice on Madame Moncond’huy in Poitiers and Monsieur Castex in Paris that from now on Postcards from Poitiers will definitely be keeping an eye on the pair of them.

The Green revolution

A couple of days spent on a jolly in Bordeaux mid-week and an exceedingly long birthday lunch party at a neighbour’s house put paid to any plans for the usual Sunday summary from Poitiers, but the extra day has given me time to catch up with the French municipal elections, which took place yesterday.

Many of the headlines this morning talk of a ‘green tsunami’ or a ‘green revolution’, and it’s fair to say that by winning here in Poitiers, as well as in Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Tours, and Grenoble, the environmentalist EELV (Europe Écologie les Verts) have established themselves as a leading political force. One of the most striking aspects of their various victories is the relative political inexperience of their candidates. Jeanne Barseghian in Strasbourg and Pierre Hurmic in Bordeaux are lawyers, and Grégory Doucet in Lyon works for a humanitarian aid organisation. They were unknown to the general public and had never previously been elected in any political capacity. Now they will be running some of the largest cities in France.

Léonore Moncond’huy.

Here in Poitiers, our new mayor is Léonore Moncond’huy, who has just turned thirty. She joined EELV in 2015 and was elected co-president of the party in 2017. Described in our local paper as ‘lively, fiery’ and ‘a young woman in a hurry’, the fact that relatively little is known about her may explain why her once being a Girl Scout seems to have been give an undue amount of attention.

The outgoing mayor, Alain Claeys,who is 71, was bidding to win a third period of office, having already served 12 years. In all, the Socialists have been in power here for the last 43 years, so this is a major shift. One noticeable aspect of the pre-election campaigning was that the two losing parties (the Socialists and LREM – President Macron’s La République en Marche) seemed very keen to establish their own green credentials, as if sensing the way the general mood was shifting. Turnout was very low at 33.2%, even lower than the first round back in March, when it was 36.4%. Turnouts nationally were generally low.

It isn’t clear yet, at least to me, how profound or sweeping the changes will be as a result of this election. The new council will no doubt want to make some sort of immediate impact, but dealing with the ongoing coronavirus problem is likely to occupy them for a while to come. As in the UK, the council administrative staff will continue in their posts, so life for most of us should go on as normal. For the time being, at least.

Elsewhere in France, in Marseille the environmental group Le Printemps Marseillais came first but without an overall majority, while the Socialists retained Paris, Nantes, Lille, and Rennes. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National claimed Perpignan.

About the only success for LREM was prime minister Edouard Philippe’s win in Le Havre, (which I suppose is the equivalent of Boris Johnson being elected Mayor of Southampton while still prime minister). Under a law of 2014, members of either house of the French Parliament can no longer carry out these ‘dual mandate’ roles, so Monsieur Philippe has nominated a deputy to serve as mayor until such time as he chooses to take up the role. This might be sooner than he anticipates, as there are regular rumours of tension between him and President Macron – something both have denied.

Twomey or not Twomey

Last Sunday evening President Macron appeared on TV announcing the latest changes to the lockdown regulations. As of Monday (the following day), all bars and restaurants would reopen again, including in Paris, where only terraces had been able to get back in business. All travel into European countries would again be allowed. That means everyone will be able to move freely inside Europe without having to show a valid international travel certificate. Quarantine rules would still apply for the UK. All schools will reopen from June 22nd, and attending school will be mandatory for all pupils in crèchesécoles (elementary and primary school), and collèges (secondary school).

In July the government will reveal plans for a significant restructuring of the economy, targeting in particular industries that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak; aeronautics, the automobile industry, tourism, culture, catering, and hotels.

***

On Monday morning, the big news in the local paper is that McDonald’s are planning to open in the town centre, on the recently vacated Orange Téléphone site. This is right next to the Tour Maubergeon with its statue of Jeanne d’Arc. It’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate spot in the city centre for a fast-food joint, particularly when there are a number of very good French restaurants and cafés nearby. A petition has been started and has already garnered over 2,000 signatures, including mine and Madame’s. I am prepared to go further and stage a sponsored eat-in, where I will consume as many as possible of the delicious home-made burgers (100% boeuf Charolais) at Le P’tit Grillé in Rue de la Regratterie.

In the afternoon I get a phone call from Twomey, reminding me that the next day is Bloomsday (the day celebrating the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses, all of which take place on one day, 16th June 1904). He suggests that we mark the occasion by meeting for a pint of Guinness in Cluricaume. I agree but am a little uneasy. I mentioned last week that Twomey and I meet for the occasional drink. This is true to the extent that we meet from time to time, usually to celebrate some event or other, but on these occasions, drink, in the singular, can be something of an understatement.

The last such occurrence was on 26th January, Australia Day. Twomey told me that one of his great-grandparents was Australian, and invited me to join him at the Wallaby’s sports bar near Place Leclerc. Here we took advantage of their two-hour-long Happy Hour to consume several pints of Castlemaine lager with Bundaberg rum chasers. Eventually I managed to get away, leaving Twomey vainly trying to get the bewildered locals to join in a chorus of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Some weeks later, when I mentioned his Australian ancestry, he looked completely baffled.

***

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Le Biblio Café. Now that things are slowly getting back to normal, I have resumed my weekly French lesson with our friend Maryse. We have started working on some of my blog pages with a view to producing them in French. Progress is slow, but she is very patient. Nevertheless, I think it is a relief for both of us when our agreed hour is up and we can reward ourselves with une biére at the end of the lesson.

On the way home my phone rings, and it is Twomey again. He tells me he’s had to go to Montmorillon unexpectedly on business and will not be able to make our evening rendezvous. I tell him that this is not a problem and that we can meet up some other time. He starts to say something, but I suddenly hear a woman shouting loudly in the background and what sounds like crockery breaking. He tells me he will call me again later and hangs up. Most odd.

***

Another sign that things are returning to normal is that my Pilates classes have restarted on Thursday mornings at Studio Équilibre on Boulevard du Grand Cerf. I began these back in November because of a problem with my hip, and they have definitely helped. There are usually about six or seven of us in the group led by our tutor, Sandra. Being an English speaker, I am obviously something of a novelty, and they all enjoy it when Sandra adds the odd instruction in English, or better still when she has to ask me to translate a word. This week everyone found it hysterically funny that the English for nombril is belly button.

The exercises are enjoyable, and there is more than enough time to reflect on the various twists and turns in life that have led to my lying on a mat, surrounded by a bunch of elderly French men and women, all of us with our legs in the air pedalling imaginary bicycles.

***

One of my favourite buildings in Poitiers is the Post Office. The camera on my new phone has given me a chance to get a much closer look at it.

Dick Turpin

I’m slowly getting used to wearing my mask in public. Their use is now compulsory in many shops, and one is obliged to wear them when entering bars and restaurants, although they can be removed once you are seated.

Shop and restaurant staff tend to wear disposable masks, as they need to change then regularly, and many members of the general public also seem to favour this type. One unfortunate result of this is that you increasingly see discarded masks lying in the street. More worryingly, the French government has ordered two billion of these disposable masks for public sector workers, and there is growing concern about the fact that they are made of polypropylene and are not biodegradable.

We were sent some washable masks by the council, but these need tying behind your head and are a bit fiddly so we bought some that you can just hook over your ears. They came in two colours; I took the black one, leaving madame the white.  We make an odd couple walking down the street – like Dick Turpin and a State Registered Nurse.

***

Tuesday: Entering a shop, I stop to put on my mask and somehow in doing so I manage to knock off my glasses, which land on the pavement and end up with a crack in one of the lenses. Not so much Dick Turpin now, more the old lady on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. They are wearable, but I will get a new pair as soon as I can get an ophthalmologist appointment – not that easy, as there is currently a national shortage of them. I will probably need to go to nearby Niort or Angoulême – both a train ride away.

Sod it, sod it, sod it!

***

I bumped into Mr Twomey on Wednesday evening in the Cluricaume. He used to work with the British Council in Paris and is now retired. Lives near the station. It would be overstating it to say he’s a friend, but native English speakers are rare in Poitiers and we’ve got used to having the occasional pint together. I hadn’t seen him since before the lockdown, and he looked a little thinner. I wondered if he’d been ill.

‘Not at all dear boy. It’s my new regime. Want to know the secret? Sage and onion stuffing! Virtually living on the stuff. Found a little place in Montmorillon that sells it. Quite bizarre. Little Asian shop that I go to for vindaloo paste. And there it was, behind the chapatis and nan bread. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Paxo’s sage and onion stuffing! Add a spot of gravy – very tasty, nutritious and dirt cheap. Had it for lunch and dinner yesterday. Bit of flatulence but it’s a small price to pay. Can almost feel the pounds falling off.’

I could do with losing a little weight myself, and I thought of mentioning this to Madame, but she can’t stand Twomey so I’ll probably let it lie.

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The mayor of Chauvigny and Laurent Jalabert

Thursday. The French cyclist Laurent Jalabert is in nearby Chauvigny today to help promote the coming Tour de France. The event should have been in July but has been postponed till September. We will have two chances to see it. The 11th stage, a 167 km run from Châtelaillon-Plage to Poitiers, is on September 9th, and the following day they go from Chauvigny to Sarran Corrèze; at 218 km this is the longest stage of the Tour. We are awaiting the exact details of the route to work out where to go for the best view. It should be fun, but of course, wherever it is, there will probably just be a blur of coloured shirts and it will be over in a couple of minutes. I mean it’s not as if it’s real cycling – like crossing the USA or anything.

Near Fairplay Colorado, April 25th 2010

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Finally, spare a thought for our friend Véronique Dujardin, whom I mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago. Because of her pending operation, Véronique has been self-isolating since March 25th, and her only day out of her apartment since then was to attend a court hearing on May 28th. In this, Bayer Pharmaceuticals were appealing against the appointment of a panel of experts to investigate whether her brain tumours were the result of her having taken Bayer medication for twenty years.

Véronique has a hell of week ahead of her. She will be back in court on Tuesday to hear the result of the Bayer appeal. That same day she has a Covid19 test at the university hospital here in Poitiers. If that test shows no indication of the virus, she will then travel to a hospital in Tours on Thursday. On Friday, she will finally have the long-postponed two-hour operation to insert a titanium prosthesis into the orbit of her left eye to reduce the pressure from a tumour.  

Véronique

We wish her well

Out and about

Out at 07.00 on Monday morning. I wanted to take some photos on the last day of confinement, which started on March 17th and has lasted 77 days. For us, it hasn’t been particularly difficult. We have plenty of room, more than enough books and DVDs, and good Wi-Fi to keep in touch with family and friends. Nearby there are pleasant walks, along the river or around the city, for our daily hour’s exercise. I am aware how lucky we are. For anyone living alone or with young children, in cramped accommodation, perhaps without Wi-Fi, things must have been pretty grim. Parks, libraries, cinemas, and museums have all been closed.

On a bright sunny morning, I walked around the city centre for an hour or so and saw just a handful of people, mainly joggers and street cleaners. The only sounds came from the occasional car passing and swifts squealing as they circled overhead. There are worse ways of starting the day.

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Liberation day. On Tuesday morning we went for coffee and croissants at the Café des Arts. It was a treat to see both François the owner and Maria the serveuse again, even if they were both masked and looked like they were about to operate on someone. About half the customers sitting on the terrace were also masked. The rules are that you must wear one when entering the interior, but you can remove it when inside.

Dr François reassuring his patients

Out again on a warm sunny evening to find the whole city centre buzzing. All the bar terraces were packed with people who had some serious catching up to do. We visit Le Gambetta and Au Bureau and end up back at the Café des Arts, by which time I was feeling distinctly mellow and had to resist the temptation to tell various strangers that they were ‘my bestest friend ever’.

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I remember many years ago my friend Terry, who had recently retired, telling me how busy he was and that he was amazed he had ever actually found time to go to work. Impressed, I asked him what he had done the previous day. There was a longish pause, and then he said, ‘Well … in the morning I posted a letter’.

I thought this very funny at the time, but I’ve just realised that, if questioned by a barrister as to my activities on Wednesday and Thursday, all I could really come up with is that I had a haircut on Wednesday and picked up my new mobile phone the following day. Of course there was other ‘stuff’, but it’s now just a blurred mass of the minutiae of daily life. This is far from a complaint. I’m increasingly a subscriber to Pascal’s dictum that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. The lockdown period made it easy to follow this advice. Now that it’s over, my fear of missing out on things will probably have me scurrying about again like a mouse in a maze.

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One curious sight this week. On three different occasions I’ve seen people carrying mattresses through the streets. Madame S had the explanation. House and flat moves were not allowed during confinement, and lots of students on short-term leases will now be sorting themselves out.

At the same time, the government has just extended the period of la trêve hivernale (the winter truce). This is a law which decrees that during the winter months, normally from November 1st to March 31st, tenants cannot be evicted, and the gas and energy companies are not allowed to cut off supplies to homes for non-payment of bills. This year, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the truce was first extended to 31st May and then to July 10th.

While this is clearly a humane statute, it means that at the end of the period evictions occur en masse, which inevitably puts a strain on social services and charities. According to an article in Le Monde in 2018, the number of compulsory evictions has risen significantly since the year 2000. In 2016 there were 15,222, an increase of over 50% on the 2013 figure. The extensions to the normal time period, along with the fact that many more people are liable to be in financial difficulties, means that this year is likely to be far worse. A reminder that the real impact of the virus is still to come.

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 Saturday morning

A ‘stop me and buy one’ cart dispensing not ice cream but free hand sanitiser.

Saturday afternoon

A march then a rally in Place Leclerc for Black Lives Matter.

Keep Your Distance!

At last some good news. On Thursday night, the Prime Minster announced that June 2nd will mark the beginning of Phase 2 in the progressive lifting of the coronavirus lockdown imposed on March 17th by President Macron. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 will last for roughly three weeks, from June 2nd to June 21st. From … Continue reading “Keep Your Distance!”

At last some good news. On Thursday night, the Prime Minster announced that June 2nd will mark the beginning of Phase 2 in the progressive lifting of the coronavirus lockdown imposed on March 17th by President Macron. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 will last for roughly three weeks, from June 2nd to June 21st.

From next Tuesday, bars and restaurants can reopen for the first time since they were closed on March 14th. The government will also accelerate the opening of schools. Cultural and sporting life will progressively return to normal.

These changes do not apply everywhere. The government has been using a traffic light system to monitor the spread and control of the virus,assigning each French département a colour depending on the results. Of the four regions that were originally red, mainly in the north-east, three are now green, and one, Île-de-France (which includes Paris), is currently classed as amber. Until it changes to green, certain restrictions will remain as to the opening of schools and places of entertainment. Restaurants and bars will only be allowed to serve customers in gardens and on terraces.

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Obviously, here in Poitiers, many local bars have been badly hit by the enforced shutdown. I see it as my civic duty to pump some money back into the local economy and will try to do so as zealously as possible. I have told Madame S that I will be going out on Tuesday afternoon and, in the words of Captain Oates, ‘I may be some time’.

One slight problem I have is getting the hang of this social distancing business. It’s reminded me of George, whom I used to work with years ago at the BBC. Came from Dunfermline. Pleasant enough chap, seriously good chess player, liked a pint. One thing George lacked, however, was an understanding of the concept of personal space. When talking, he tended to stand almost toe to toe with you, and as he was a big chap, this could be quite intimidating until you got to know him. Usually one could make a joke about it and he would obligingly step back a little, but on the not infrequent occasions when drink had been taken, he would gradually forget this and inch forward again. The only option then would be to retreat a couple of steps yourself and wait for his next advance. I can remember several occasions when, in the course of an evening, George and I would perform what looked like a slow courtship ritual around the bar of the BBC Club, to the bewilderment of everyone there.

With the best will in the world, I can see similar scenes, multiplied many times, happening in bars here next week. The French are generally law-abiding folk, so everyone will start out correctly distanced. Gradually though, those more susceptible to alcohol will either forget, or get bored by, the rules and start to move closer; their more sober companions will move backwards, and before you know, there will be a strange sort of alcoholic line dancing going on. Furniture will get knocked over, small children will be trampled on. The more I think about it, I may wait a day or two to let things settle down a bit.

One other thing that had been bothering me was how to actually measure the correct social distance when I went to a bar of an evening. I want to do the right thing when I go out, and this has proved more difficult than I had imagined.

In the UK, people are told to keep two metres apart, and my daughters sent me a useful guide to how this can be achieved. Unfortunately, cardboard cut-outs of Richard Osman are in short supply in Poitiers at the moment.

A pointless exercise

I was kindly sent this leaflet by Tobias, a reader in Kenya. It’s fascinating, but hardly practical in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Out of Africa

Harvey, an old pal from Wisconsin, sent me this, which was a lot more useful and I could see a possible solution.

All I need is two dogs.

The only dog owner I know is our slightly bonkers neighbour Madame Boissier, who has two old and rather arthritic Labradors. I could tell her how much I had admired the creatures from afar and that I would regard it as an honour if she would allow me to take them for a walk in the evenings. This might seem a bit odd, as I have hitherto carefully avoided any contact with these malodorous beasts, but she’s getting on and would probably be glad of the offer. I’m no expert on canines, but I don’t see any problem in persuading them to stand nose to tail. As far as I can see, most dogs seem to do little else.

Then, on Friday, to my alarm, I discovered in the local paper that the recommended distance here in France is in fact one metre, which meant that I only needed one dog. How could I go to the old bat and tell her that I actually adored only one of her sodding mutts? Or that I adored them both but only one at a time? My heart sank.

I needn’t have worried. Out for a walk yesterday morning, I found that, with typical French ingenuity, our local boulangerie has come up with the perfect solution:

The bars are opening. I’ve got plenty of bread. Look out world. Here I come!

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, the feast day of the Ascension, was a public holiday (un jour férié) in France. I’m half-glad, half-disappointed to see that here, as in the UK, most people don’t quite know what to do on these days. This is even more true at present, when everyday life for many of us has a ‘permanent … Continue reading “Happy Holidays!”

Thursday, the feast day of the Ascension, was a public holiday (un jour férié) in France. I’m half-glad, half-disappointed to see that here, as in the UK, most people don’t quite know what to do on these days. This is even more true at present, when everyday life for many of us has a ‘permanent bank holiday’ feel to it. In Poitiers, shops and most restaurants and places of entertainment don’t open on public holidays. You can’t currently invite people around to share some charred burgers and sausages, so generally the wisest thing to do is stay indoors and read or watch TV.

We have eleven public holidays in France, three more than in the UK. Neither Good Friday nor Boxing Day are holidays here, but we celebrate Victory in Europe Day (May 8th), Armistice Day (November 11th), and Bastille Day (July 14th). The other holidays are all religious: the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, both movable and dependent on Easter, the Assumption (August 15th), and All Saints’ Day (November 1st).

In the UK, the late Spring Bank Holiday broadly equates to Pentecost, as it used to be the Monday after Whit Sunday but is now fixed as the last Monday in May. The UK August Bank Holiday has no religious antecedent, It was introduced by the Banking Act of 1871, a piece of legislation championed by Sir John Lubbock, a member of Parliament and a social reformer. One of his intentions was that bank staff should have time off to play and watch cricket, which seems fair enough to me. For a while, these Bank Holidays were called St Lubbock’s days and, by and large, Lubbock does seem to have been a very decent sort of chap; he studied ants and tried to teach his poodle to read.

It’s perhaps odd that France, officially a secular country, has the extra religious holidays, although I have heard profoundly atheist trade unionists getting quite misty-eyed when defending the right of their fellow workers to follow their religious beliefs. Of course, if this means that, despite being non-believers, they too (malheureusement) have to take a day off work, then so be it.

A major difference between the UK and France is that, in the former, Bank Holidays are usually fixed on a Monday but in the latter they can be on any day of the week. This means that if they land at the weekend many workers don’t see much benefit. On the other hand, if they land on a Thursday or a Tuesday, then one can faire le pont: take the intervening Friday or Monday off and have a five-day-long break. In some years, this can be exploited very effectively, and a recent newspaper article showed that this year twenty-five days of annual leave could yield sixty days en vacance.

In both countries, public holidays are, from time to time, the subject of political debate. In the UK, the Early May Bank Holiday was introduced in 1978 by the then employment secretary Michael Foot, before he went on to be leader of the Labour Party. It’s never been popular with many Tories, the idea of ‘a workers’ day’ being seen as subversive if not downright revolutionary. There are regular rumblings about replacing it with either Trafalgar Day on October 21st or Waterloo Day on June 18th (both of which would, I’m sure, go down really well here in France). In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Jeremy Corbyn proposed four new bank holidays on the four national saints’ days. Sadly, as with his monorail to the moon and free beer for the over-fifties, the proposal did not prove to be an electoral game-changer.

From time to time here in France, MEDEF, the major employers’ federation, pushes to make public holidays a fixed attachment to the weekend, as in the UK, to remove the temptation to faire le pont, though I don’t see how that would make much difference to overall productivity. More significantly, MEDEF is also pushing for the gradual elimination of ‘one or two’ public holidays. They currently have Ascension Day in their sights, pointing out that May already has two fixed holidays and that both Ascension and Pentecost can also fall within the month. They point approvingly to the UK’s eight holidays and Germany’s nine, and argue that the elimination of one holiday is equal to a gain of 0.9% of GDP. At one point, President Macron seemed receptive to this idea, but he has noticeably backtracked on it recently.

Some changes have been made over the years. VE day, inaugurated as a public holiday in 1953, was downgraded to a day of commemoration by de Gaulle in 1959. Giscard d’Estaing went further in 1978 and abolished the commemoration of the Allied victory, instead declaring May 9th as a day of commemoration of the 1950 Robert Schuman speech that led to the foundation of the European Union. One of Mitterrand’s first acts on becoming President in 1981 was to reinstate the original May 8th holiday.

More recently, the Pentecost holiday has been the object of some controversy. This dates back to 2003, when some 15,000 elderly French people died during a summer-long heatwave. In an attempt to improve care for the aged, the Chirac government declared that, from 2005, Pentecost would no longer be one of France’s eleven annual public holidays. Instead, employees would go to work as normal but they would not earn anything, their wages being handed over to a fund that would be spent on care for the elderly and disabled. The day was to be known as Solidarity Day. The move proved deeply unpopular and was denounced as the imposition of a salary tax. Pentecost Monday became a public holiday again in 2008, with the Sarkozy government introducing other fiscal measures to raise money to support the elderly and persons with disabilities. 

Whilst the objection to Solidarity Day might seem an indication of mean-spiritedness on the part of the general populace, it’s fair to say that the deaths in 2003 were not caused by any lack of funds. It’s possible, too, that people might be a little uneasy about being reminded of those whose deaths started the controversy. As the ever-succinct Madame S. puts it, ‘they died because their families all buggered off to Corsica on holiday’.

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An unexpected lockdown victim spotted in a house in Rue de la Cathédrale